Hot air balloon tourism / Arianwen Jones

There are still places on earth where wild things happen. As we approached the Masai Mara in southern Kenya , the famed landscape at first appeared to be an overgrazed dustbowl. Masai tribesmen moved across the open grasslands tending their cattle, goats and sheep. But when we entered the reserve this morning as first light brightened the sky, beating even the ticket taker to his post, we encountered a sea of red-oat grass, shin-high, knee-high, thigh-high, rich with the rains, green and ready. Within moments we see two jackals, each with its own half of a small antelope. Around the bend, Chris spots a cheetah sitting poised, elegant, the form instantly recognizable, but REAL, there in front of us. She stands, her belly hanging, and Teeku tells us she’s pregnant. She moves off into the grass, disappearing in perfect camouflage. She emerges and laps from a puddle. She retreats, an awesome arrogance, queen of land-bound speed.

Cheetah / Meera Subramanian

It is just the beginning. We pass an elephant with a criss-crossed tusk. A male ostrich bright pink with lust. Herds of wildebeest moving in single file. By breakfast, as we crack hard-boiled eggs on our knees under an acacia tree, the vultures are soaring. They descend to a wildebeest carcass down the hill from us as we pack up and head down the road. And then in a flurry the scavengers are chased away. Lion! One, then another. But they’re too full to eat it seems. We watch them fifty feet from our Land Rover, close but seeming to not disturb them. Her muscles pop out in definition when she tries to pull the heavy body into the grass. We can hear her panting as she stands over the body, catching her breath. Vultures wait in nearby trees, others kettling above, ten, twenty, forty, sixty as we try to make an accurate count. The lioness passes off her guard to a second female, who emerges from the treeline, and the second sits to eat off the rump of the fallen prey, her muzzle emerged saturated with blood. But together they have barely broken the hide. They are full, bellies hanging, disinterested. They leave, and we watch as the vultures return. In ten minutes they have gutted the creature. White-backs and lappet-faced vultures, and marabou storks fighting over the organs.

Lioness fresh from a wildebeest kill. / Meera Subramanian

When the lions don’t return, Munir cautiously sets the trap — a long line with large noose snares strung along it — as Brian and Arian serve as lion lookout. Twenty minutes later, we’ve caught a white-backed vulture. Evan is out of the jeep in an instant with a blanket to cover her and loosen her talons from the noose, holds her calmly as she vomits bright red innards back out.

White-backed vulture / Meera Subramanian

Vultures on the kill. / Arianwen Jones

Forty minutes later, we’ve attached GPS unit #432 and set her free. Into the wild.

Munir and Evan with a white-backed vulture. / Meera Subramanian

Here is a clip from a BBC show to give you a better feel.

There is more. The wildebeests have begun the migration, though it is early in the season. There are thousands, grunting – humph! humph! There are warthogs, and a single mud-caked buffalo swarming with flies. There are giraffes, legs sprawled to bend down in reach of shrubs. More elephants. More wildebeest. More ostrich. More warthogs. Grey kestrels. Yellow-throated sand grouse. Crowned hornbill. Striped mongoose on their hind legs like meerkats. Lappet-faced vultures. Two tagged vulture resightings. Tawny eagles. Secretary birds. Superb starlings. Rufous-naped larks. Lesser grey shrikes. Antelope. Thomson’s gazelles. A studly impala trailed by his harem. Waterbuck. Topis nodding to us in agreement. More wildebeest. We pass seven carcasses in just a few kilometers. Food. Food. Food drives everything and it is either abundance or death at this moment in the Mara. Grass grows. Grass gets eaten. Calves are born. Mothers are hunted. Wildebeests cross the Mara River and crocs lie in wait. Jackals kill. Jackals are robbed. Everything is immediate. Everything is now.

We spent the last two days trapping birds on and around Lake Naivasha. One group loaded up in the van and drove the road that circumnavigates the lake to do a road count of resident raptors with the hopes of trapping and banding some while the other group climbed into boats armed with fish to trap African fish eagles. The next day, we switched.

A brave little mouse was our lure on land. Safe within its cage that was set with fine fishing line snares, an augur buzzard immediately descended, got tangled, and Munir and Evan jumped to release him.

Munir and Evan band an augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

Banding, or ringing, of birds helps biologists track bird populations over time and geography.

Maria holds the augur buzzard before releasing it. / Meera Subramanian

It’s also a chance to experience and learn about the birds up close.

Augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

As its mate waits in a nearby tree, the buzzard calmly lets us affix the ring to its leg.

Drew releases the next bird, in perfect form, as a curious local looks on. / Meera Subramanian

Meanwhile, on the water, Shiv leads the African fish eagle trapping. First, Shiv shows us how to get our hands dirty, using a carp fish as a lure and setting snare lines through it.

Shiv holds a carp with snares. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv holds a fish eagle, calm with its eyes covered. / Meera Subramanian

Fish eagle populations are doing well at Lake Naivasha, but only more studies will determine whether they are being effected by pollution, changes in the ecosystem and water quality, or the lead that remains from decades of bird hunting on this lake.

Maria and Drew watch as Shiv bands a bird held by Chege. / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, we visit two flower farms to see their wetlands water filtration system. Homegrown produces both flowers and vegetables.  Oserian is one of, if not the largest flower farm company in Kenya, and a major player in the Naivasha region. Representatives from Oserian came to Elsamere to make a presentation about their company’s ethics, mission and policies. Both companies raise interesting questions about fair trade certification and what it really means. Oserian was proud that they are paying their full-time workers 7,900 shillings per month, which is about a hundred dollars US. Some workers also receive housing, school for their children and health care, but a hundred dollars is still not much money for a month’s labor.

As for their environmental practices, both companies claim to not use WHO Class I pesticides, listed as extremely hazardous. Oserian opts for Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) instead. What chemicals they are using to produce a million stems of cut flowers each day, though, they refuse to reveal. Both site visits displayed a small area with a series of water containment areas that were filtering not the water coming from the flower production area, but the water from the kitchens, laundries, etc. It was impressive, visually, going from this:

First intake pool. / Meera Subramanian

To this:

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

But where is the rest of the water that makes it back to Lake Naivasha, untreated and unfiltered? And what, exactly does it contain? What might be in the bodies of the fish that are caught and eaten from the lake? No one, at this point, seems to know.

Oserian shows us their wetlands. / Meera Subramanian

On day two of the surveys, we take opposite sides of the lake. The wildlife is abundant.

Cape Buffalo among invasive hyacinth. / Meera Subramanian

Maria leads the pack. / Teeku Patel
Maria leads the pack with a grin. / Teeku Patel

A waterbuck lets us get a close look. / Meera Subramanian

Hippos snort up water in agitation when we get too close. / Meera Subramanian

While we get surprisingly close to wildlife, we also see that flower farm greenhouses also come much too close to the shore. Human impact has greatly altered the lake’s ecosystem. Papyrus that once ringed the lake and created floating islands of filtration are now mostly gone, replaced with invasive hyacinth. Native fish are also long gone, replaced by numerous introduced species including crayfish, tilapia, carp, and large-mouthed bass (introduced for the pleasure of President Roosevelt in 1927).

Flower farm greenhouses / Arianwen Jones

Greenhouses up close / Meera Subramanian

Lunch was late, by the time one of our boats found their way out of a papyrus thicket that nearly sucked up their vessel! Oh, and once they got out, they ran out of gas in the middle of the lake. Luckily, the second boat had some spare fuel. All in a day’s field work!

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected. / Munir Virani

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected, as Drew learns to "live with the papyrus." 🙂 / Munir Virani

In the afternoon, Meera leads the students into the world of environmental journalism.

Lake Naivasha in the early morning light. / Arianwen Jones

Lake Naivasha is nearly 200 square kilometers in size, so we split into two groups and climb into boats to travel the shoreline, counting hippos and African fish eagles. In one boat, Arian takes the clipboard and Maria the map, and note numbers and GPS location as we spot pods of snorting (and scary to us, in our thin aluminum boat) hippos and the distinct white spot among the green acacia trees that indicate a fish eagle.

Arian keeps track of numbers. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv is our guide. He tosses out fish we’ve brought to lure the eagles toward us and we get our first opportunities to practice our wildlife photography, shooting fast and hoping we can focus well enough to get a clear shot of whether the large raptors (which resemble American bald eagles) have a ring on their leg.

African fish eagle / Meera Subramanian

Monitoring the movement and pairing of the birds is helping to understand their conservation status. Here’s a short video that Munir did for The Peregrine Fund:

We meet the other boat halfway around the lake and return over the now-choppy water, fairly soaked by the time we arrive back at Elsamere for a nice hot lunch.

In the afternoon, Munir gives an introduction to Kenya’s birds of prey and Teeku talks about how to work with your photographic subject.